A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket fired from its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Friday during a six-hour climb to geosynchronous orbit, deploying a classified payload and a US Space Force satellite to test an improved infrared heat-sensitive sensor design. test that could help detect and track enemy hypersonic missiles.
The mission, dubbed USSF-12, put the two Space Force satellites into orbit on the target more than 22,400 miles (about 36,100 kilometers) above the equator, according to ULA. The spacecraft is expected to maneuver several hundred miles lower in the geostationary belt to their final operational positions, where they will spin in the same motion as Earth’s rotation.
One of the payloads, called the Wide Field of View Testbed, will demonstrate a new instrument design that could help the military better warn of a missile attack. The USSF-12 Ring spacecraft, traveling under the WFOV Testbed payload during launch, will host classified experiments and technical demo payloads.
Launched a day late after stormy weather violated a countdown on Thursday, the Atlas 5 ignited its Russian-made RD-180 main engine and four tethered solid rocket boosters at 7:15 p.m. EDT (2315 GMT) Friday on the fourth. mission to kick off the year for United Launch Alliance, a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
The countdown on Friday was also delayed by the bad weather. The Atlas 5 launch team waited more than an hour for electrically charged anvil clouds and higher winds to become more favorable for launch.
The weather problems cleared up and the ULA engineers cleared the final four minutes of the countdown, culminating in the Atlas 5’s fiery departure from Florida’s Space Coast.
United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket launches from Cape Canaveral, carrying two experimental US Space Force satellites on a six-hour climb to geosynchronous orbit. https://t.co/f4AQ790G43 pic.twitter.com/Gbrdl2BeAi
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The rocket headed east, with thrust of 2.3 million pounds, and exceeded the speed of sound in less than a minute as it disappeared into a cloudy cloud cover. Flight cameras showed the rocket throwing off its four boosters and cargo fairings as the RD-180 kerosene-powered engine propelled the Atlas 5 for the first four minutes of flight.
The RD-180 engine made its mark on Friday and delivered a good performance to start the mission for the Space Force. Friday’s launch marked the 100th flight of an RD-180 engine – all successful – since its debut on a Lockheed Martin Atlas 3 rocket in May 2000. The Atlas 3 was a bridging program between the older versions of the Atlas rocket family and the Atlas 5 .
ULA discontinues Atlas 5 and stops using Russian engines. After Friday night’s flight, the company still has 22 Atlas 5 missions on the books. ULA’s new rocket, the Vulcan Centaur, will be powered by all American engines.
After the first stage completed its combustion and separated to fall into the Atlantic Ocean, the Atlas 5’s upper stage ignited an Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engine for the first of three fires to launch the USSF-12 payloads into their target orbit. place.
The first two burns placed the satellites in a parking orbit and then in an elliptical or oval-shaped transfer orbit. The Centaur’s upper stage kissed to target height more than 22,000 miles above Earth, re-igniting the RL10 engine to spin its orbit.
The WFOV Testbed spacecraft separated from the Centaur stage at 1:04 a.m. EDT (0504 GMT). A special adapter structure was released about 10 minutes later, allowing the USSF-12 Ring spacecraft to deploy from the rocket at 1:20 a.m. EDT (0520 GMT) Saturday.
ULA called the launch a success in a press release early Saturday.
“This mission once again demonstrated ULA’s unparalleled ability to precisely deliver the country’s most critical assets into highly complex orbit,” said Gary Wentz, ULA’s vice president of government and commercial programs. “Our strong partnership with the USSF team is essential to maintain our country’s security advantages and achieve robust mission assurance.”
The Space Force’s Wide Field of View, or WFOV, Testbed surveillance satellite was one of the payloads on the USSF-12 mission. The WFOV Testbed satellite is a demonstrator for a next-generation space sensor designed to detect missile launches and provide early warning of a missile attack.
Built in El Segundo, California, by Millennium Space Systems, a subsidiary of Boeing, the WFOV Testbed satellite carries an optical staring instrument to detect the exhaust plumes from rocket launches, demonstrating the wide sensor for future use in early-warning operational of the military systems.
The WFOV mission will demonstrate the optical sensor technology for use in future missile warning missions in the Space Force’s Overhead Persistent Infrared, or OPIR, program. The next-generation OPIR missions will replace the Space Based Infrared System, or SBIRS, missile warning satellites that currently provide missile detection and early warning.
The Space Force is working with the Space Development Agency and the Missile Defense Agency on a next-generation missile warning satellites in low Earth orbit and geostationary orbit.
Colonel Brian Denaro, the Space Force’s program director for space detection, said the WFOV Testbed mission “will enhance our target identification and characterization capabilities. It is an important prototype for the resilient integrated missile warning, tracking, and missile defense architecture.”
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The infrared sensor on the WFOV Testbed satellite was developed by L3Harris. The Space Force said the infrared instrument has “first in its class sensor sensitivity” across its wide field of view, capable of tracking dark targets over large areas. The new sensor technology is needed as threats shift from primarily large ballistic missiles to smaller projectiles, such as hypersonic cruise missiles.
“The threat is certainly evolving at an unprecedented rate that we have not seen before,” Denaro said. “We’re looking at a range of targets and missiles in the hypersonic domain that are much more agile, they’re weaker, they’re harder to see. And that requires a new approach to how we detect and then track all these missiles in flight.
“We’re seeing these developments in both China and Russia at a very rapid pace, which requires us to develop these overhead systems that can evolve to keep up with those changing directions,” Denaro said.
SBIRS satellites carry scan and stare sensors, while the instrument on the WFOV Testbed mission can collect data with a single sensor. The last SBIRS satellite is expected to be launched in August on the next Atlas 5 rocket and the first next-generation OPIR missile warning satellite will be launched in 2025 or 2026.
The WFOV testbed “can simultaneously perform strategic missions, such as missile alerts and combat space awareness, as well as tactical missions that directly support the war fighter, by continuously monitoring up to a third of the Earth’s surface with just a single sensor,” said Col. Heather Bogstie, senior equipment leader for resilient missile warning, tracking, and defense at Space Systems Command.
The L3Harris instrument also features a “tactical cryocooler” to cool its infrared detectors. The cheaper cryocooler was originally designed to fly in airplanes, but has been repurposed for use in space.
The missile warning demonstration satellite — about one-fourth the size of the Space Force’s current generation of SBIRS satellites — is designed for a three-year mission, with a total mass of up to 6,600 pounds (3,000 kilograms), according to Millennium.
The payload of the L3Harris is more than 2 meters high and weighs more than 165 kilometers. The instrument was developed at an L3Harris facility in Wilmington, Massachusetts.
“The L3Harris instrument can continuously stare at an interesting theater to provide ongoing battlespace information, which is an improvement over legacy systems,” said Ed Zoiss, president of space and air systems at L3Harris. “It also offers better resolution, sensitivity and target discrimination at a lower cost.”
The second satellite aboard the USSF-12 mission has a range of classified payloads.
The Space Force says the USSF-12 Ring spacecraft is based on a “ring-based structure” that can house multiple experiments and prototype technologies. The military has not said what experiments could be mounted on the USSF 12 Ring spacecraft, or whether it will carry deployable freeflying satellites that will separate from the parent spacecraft to conduct their own missions.
The USSF-12 Ring spacecraft is built on a Northrop Grumman satellite bus called ESPA Star, which itself is based on a ring structure originally designed to accommodate secondary payloads during launch. Northrop Grumman modified the ring structure with solar energy and propulsion power to function as a self-contained satellite.
ULA’s next mission is scheduled for August with the SBIRS GEO 6 missile warning satellite.
The launch company has six more missions scheduled for the rest of the year, including the launch of SBIRS and the final flights of the Delta 4-Heavy and Atlas 5 rockets from the West Coast spaceport of the Vandenberg Space Force Base. , California. † The remaining Delta 4 and Atlas 5 flights will all take off from Cape Canaveral.
ULA hopes to launch the first next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket from Florida by the end of the year. And the crew’s maiden flight on Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft could launch on an Atlas 5 rocket in late 2022.
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